...a blog by Richard Flowers

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Day 2309: DOCTOR WHO: Evolution of the Daleks


I have been UNDERCOVER to report on the latest Doctor Who story – look carefully at this picture of the CULT OF SKARO and you MAY be able to spot an INFILTRATOR…

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…unfortunately, Dalek Caan has ESCAPED! I am now VERY SCARED that he is hiding behind my sofa, so if you will excuse me I am going to go and take shelter in my Daddies’ bedroom while Daddy Richard reviews the rest of this story for you.

It would be easy to be dazzled by the impressive special effects, the thrilling action sequences, or by the obvious visual references to “Frankenstein” (in particular to James Whale’s 1931 Universal classic). But if you were, you would be suckered into mistaking this for some Hollywood hollow spectacular, and miss the more important thematic development that grows not just from “Daleks in Manhattan”, but also from “The Evil of the Daleks” and “Genesis of the Daleks” itself.

“Frankenstein” is subtitled “The Modern Prometheus”, a retelling of the story of the Titan who stole fire from the gods of Olympus to give it to mortal mankind. Superficially – as superficially as the visual referencing of “Frankenstein” by “Evolution of the Daleks” – that is a reference to the lightning bolt that Frankenstein uses to resurrect his stitched together man. But it is also about knowledge, and here that knowledge, that “power of creation”, is represented by genetics, the power that was used in “Genesis…” to create the Daleks in the first place, and now to re-create the entire Dalek race.

And, in context, the fire of Olympus represents free will: Prometheus gives man the ability to make choices for himself, rather than blindly obeying the will of the gods. Similarly, Frankenstein creates in his creature the ability to choose between good and evil for itself. And similarly again, “Evolution of the Daleks” is about the conflict between the Daleks’ law of obey or die, and the human factor of freedom. It is, essentially, what the Time War was fought over, and it is re-enacted here in microcosm.

After establishing the Old Testament memes of Heaven and Hell in last week’s episode, this week Helen Raynor reveals to us almost a New Testament of the Daleks, with Dalek Sec discovering it in himself to be a Dalek messiah. Instead of absolute law handed down from the “creator” in “Genesis…”, Sec wants the Daleks to learn that there can be another way, wouldn’t it be great if they could all just get along.

The irony should not be lost that by absorbing Mr Diagoras – superficially the “bad guy” in last weeks story – Sec has discovered courage, compassion, hope: all of humanity’s finer feelings.

The Frankenstein monster is, in many ways, more human than its creator too and, of course, it too is destroyed by the mob. Alex also points out that Doctor Frankenstein, like Dalek Sec, is a lone genius practicing his forbidden art and creating a single creature – but there is no place for such a unique talent among the Daleks who reproduce their golems on an industrial scale.

Redemption is the message of the New Testament, and redemption – Redemption of the Daleks – is the theme of this episode, with the Daleks being offered redemption first by Solomon, whom they exterminate, then by Sec, whom they exterminate, and finally, at the end, by the Doctor, whom Dalek Caan flees.

Killing off Solomon so soon in the episode was a bold and yet thoroughly correct decision. One of the “fear factor” kids expresses the surprise that “he was a main character!” By giving Solomon all that character development only to “just” kill him is, of course, the whole point. You should remember that everyone who gets killed in a Doctor Who adventure has a story, whether we’ve seen the development or not, and every one of them has a right to expect that story to carry on – killing them always ends those stories. And that’s what Daleks do: they have no respect for your “story” or your “development”; they just kill.

Besides, doing an impression of Thal leader Temmosus (“The Daleks”) is so asking to be exterminated.

But in a sense, Solomon’s death – pointless and little as it is – awakens Dalek Sec to his awareness of humanity. Solomon had courage and that affects Sec. Perhaps significant is the revelation that Dalek Sec is the first Dalek to have known pain in thousands of years. Daleks don’t need courage if they never have to face pain. In their shells, they are anaesthetised to all feelings.

Sec, to his credit, recognises that it is the ability to feel, to connect to the world outside, that challenges humans to better themselves and that gives them their unique powers of survival.

I am reminded that the human that Sec absorbed is named for Diagoras the Atheist, and that Sec begins to question “the creator”.

The Daleks are, of course, the ultimate creationists: they just know that they were created as supreme beings. Though, in fairness, they know because they shot the bugger that did it. But they didn’t kill him because they questioned him; they killed him because they took his word absolutely literally. (And by avoiding naming him, “Evolution of the Daleks” doesn’t just do away with needless backstory, it plays up the theistic metaphor.)

But here we see a bold restatement of one of the series’ core values: the Doctor’s argument with Davros (not to mention endless Cyberleaders) is over the need for emotion. Davros thinks emotion weakens you; the Doctor thinks it makes the universe a better place. It is Davros’ refusal to see this point of view that sets him and the Doctor at odds; it is Sec’s recognition of it that allows the Doctor to reconcile himself with a Dalek.

But the Daleks aren’t interested in redemption. And, like good little fundamentalists, they reject evolution.

There were really two ways to go from the cliff-hanger at the end of last week: I suspected we might see a “Blood of the Daleks” route, with the Doctor siding with the original Daleks to prevent the birth of something worse; Alex, more wisely, saw that the Doctor would join Sec to try and defeat the purpose of the other Daleks. Alex of course was right, and it was really more satisfying that he was. His way round, the Doctor remained true to his ideals, didn’t have to choose the lesser of two evils, and nor were the Daleks compromised in their fundamental inhumanity.

The characterisation of the fully Dalek Daleks was spot on: we loved their conspiratorial glances, suspicious, narrowing eye-lenses and are-we-alone eyestalk movements. It was entirely right that their diabolical deviousness would see them use the Doctor and Sec to complete and perfect the experiment for hybridising all those humans while at the same time subverting it, perverting it to their own ends.

I thought the idea of an army of, essentially, human corpses with Daleks riding around inside them was deliciously grotesque, if subtly played down in the show. A nice touch was the way that Sec referred to his new self as a “Human Dalek”, while the other Daleks called their army of undead “Dalek-Humans”.

And dragging Dalek Sec around in chains was another typically Dalek thing to do: humiliation of humanoids being their second favourite hobby, because – as the Doctor remarks in “Destiny of the Daleks” – they used to be humanoid themselves. These Daleks even recognised a need to retake humanoid form, so enslaving Sec (or as Alex puts it: chaining their conscience) they are really rubbing the point in. Daleks never change their minds, says the Doctor – well these guys do, but they are thoroughly “1984” about old ideas once they’ve decided that they were wrongthinking.

I’m glad that they addressed the issue that I raised last week: why didn’t they just clone more Daleks from themselves? Well, of course, they tried that and if didn’t work. Obviously, that begs the question why not? My suspicion would be that when the Dalek Emperor created the Cult of Skaro he deliberately designed them with a genetic flaw so that they couldn’t reproduce themselves. As Emperor, the very last thing that he would want would be a breed of thinking, questioning Daleks being nurtured within his Empire – after all, look what happened last time!

Which brings me to the climax with the Daleks on stage in the theatre – well someone must have enjoyed Nick Scovell’s “Evil of the Daleks” on stage as much as we did. Alex pointed out that Dalek Caan wiring himself into the walls to take command of the Dalek army was him making himself into a prototype Dalek Emperor (the BBC’s website uses that scary Dalek heartbeat, but Alex is disappointed that it is not available to download). And the final battle is precipitated when a “Dalek” – a “Dalek” infected with the human factor by the Doctor, no less – a “Dalek” questions an order.

My one passing regret was that Caan didn’t migrate to Sec’s discarded Black Dalek shell. Russell T has so gone on about how attached to their Black Dalek they’ve become I was surprised that they would just discard it in the sewers under the Empire State Building.

Well, I’ve spent the whole review talking about the Daleks again, haven’t I? They do rather tend to take things over though, don’t they?

There was more for Martha to do this week – from healing the wounded in Hooverville to battling the pigmen in the Empire State Building. Using the Daleks’ own lightning bolt against them was an inspired touch. Gosh but Martha is brainy: that one was worthy of the Doctor himself. And afterwards, after doing the necessary, she has a very Doctor-like moment of regret. “There should have been another way,” perhaps.

The other humanoid supporting cast were, necessarily, sidelined by the pepperpots. Sidelined or, indeed, shot. Tallulah and Lazlo suffered most – though we were still treated to another great Tallulah pig joke with her concerns about Gammon Radiation, and they did get their happy ending. Sure it was an “oh, he lives,” but having spent so much time setting up the fact that Lazlo was doomed, it was rather nice to defeat expectations by saving him. And it was very Doctor-ish to react to all the death and horror by throwing his all into saving one life if he could.

The Doctor was more of a force of nature than ever in this story: taking the lightning and re-writing it with his own body. (Oh yes he can do that – we saw him doing something similar in “Smith and Jones”, remember?) He doesn’t stop trying to teach the Daleks, though: from the moment he reveals himself to them after the cliff-hanger he’s telling them about music – you can see the effect this later has on Sec when the hybrid is handling the shattered radio; and later he marches straight in lecturing them about the morality of killing. Sec agreeing that killing is wrong brings him up short, though.

He’s at his most deathwish since his ninth incarnation too – offering himself up for extermination in Hooverville, even though it will achieve nothing, it won’t stop the Daleks or even save the people. He has genuinely lost everything again and the Daleks’ survival seems to have pushed him over the edge. In a way, Sec seems to save him in more ways than the physical, giving him something to live for and perhaps giving him some redemption too. Standing in the way of the lightning is about achieving something in a way that standing in the way of extermination wasn’t.

Neither of them were expecting the Time Lord’s salvation to come from a Dalek messiah, and yet they seem to recognise something worthy in each other and maybe even find a kind of respect, if not friendship.

It’s a great ending for the Doctor, too. If ever there was a time when he would be justified in killing a Dalek, surely it is just at the moment that that Dalek has committed genocide. (The Doctor and Martha both avoid genocide by a score of one, incidentally: Martha electrocutes all of the pigmen except Lazlo; the Doctor wipes out all the Daleks except Caan). And yet the Doctor goes to Caan and wants to help. Presumably to take Caan somewhere where he can live harmlessly away from anyone else. Maybe even to take Sec’s route and to evolve. It’s an ending very true to the spirit of what the Doctor stands for, a love of humanity, a love of life. And very true to the spirit of “Genesis of the Daleks” as well.

I’ll reiterate my thought from my review of “Blood of the Daleks”: the Doctor’s victory at the end of “Genesis of the Daleks” – and it is a victory – is in the realisation that if the Time Lords were to exterminate the Daleks then they would become the Daleks. The Doctor chooses a universe where Daleks are not inevitable, where “exterminate” is not the last word.

But where has Dalek Caan gone? No, don’t tell me – especially if he’s going to be back later this year. I’d like some surprises to remain!

It seems to me that the Daleks – or rather Dalek, now – may be trapped on Earth, able to jump forwards or backwards in time but stranded on the planet. Which makes for an interesting dynamic, but rather limits their ability to build their numbers back up again.

Personally, I’d really like to see the Doctor return to the Dalek Invasion of Earth. It’s such an iconic moment in the future-history of Earth as well as in the history of the series that it would have all the resonance of a proper “historical”. It was one of the stories that really transformed the series: up until that point, Earth had been the safe haven that Ian and Barbara longed to return to. Earth had been inviolable. All that changed with the Invasion; all that changed with the Daleks. It’s one of those events that people are sure to remember and may even think has really happened. And I can just imagine Dalek Caan skulking around trying to get hold of some viable Dalek genetic material without getting noticed, one bronze Dalek amidst all the silver Daleks. And it would be somewhere really uncomfortable for the Doctor to be as well, knowing that in say 2165 for once he can’t defeat the monsters because he already has, but not until 2167.

The last line of “Evolution of the Daleks” (Martha asks: “will you see it again?” and the Doctor answers “oh yes; one day”) even echoes “One day I shall come back, oh yes…” from “The Dalek Invasion of Earth”.

But wherever, and whenever, they are sure to return and I am already looking forward to the next encounter. Helen Raynor has brought a depth and allegory to them not seen since the great days of Robert Holmes, Philip Hinchcliffe and David Maloney; I hope that she’ll be back soon too.

Next time… It’s that Mark Gatiss! He’s seventy-six years old, you know. “The Lazarus Experiment”. Saturday at 7pm.

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